The Amazing Life Of Astronomer Johannes Kepler

By | April 12, 2022

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Illustration of a Johannes Kepler discussing his discoveries with Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. (Nastasic/Getty Images)

Johannes Kepler was one of the most influential scientists in history, with his work on the motions of planets serving as the basis for the entire field of Newtonian physics. Born on December 27, 1571 in present-day Germany, he faced struggles almost immediately in life, as he was born premature and contracted smallpox at a very young age, which left him generally weak for the rest of his childhood.

When he was only six years old, however, he witnessed the Great Comet of 1577, which inspired him to study astronomy later in his schooling. Eventually, he attended the University of Tübingen, where he focused on theology with the intention of working in the clergy but divided his time between math and science as well. When he grew up in Europe during the late 1500s, most people believed that the planets and Sun revolved around the Earth and moved in circles, but Kepler's tutor secretly taught the controversial works of Copernicus, who argued that planets that actually revolved around the Sun.

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Kepler's Platonic solid model of the Solar System, from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596). (Johannes Kepler/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1594, rather than becoming a theologian, he was offered a job as a math teacher in the town of Graz, where he became obsessed with the idea that math was the language of God's design and the key to understanding God. He spent a great many years on his concept of Platonic solids relating to the orbit of planets, but the work was shaky and never developed into anything usable.

Soon, religious strife between Lutherans, like Kepler, and Catholics reared its head in Graz and Kepler needed a safe way out of the city, so he took an offer to assist notable man of science Tycho Brahe, who was known for his wild parties, gold nose, and penchant for correctly predicting the movement of planets. It was an odd coupling, the partying alchemist and the devout astronomer, but they both believed in the heliocentric model of the solar system and worked well together. After Brahe died, Kepler used his observational notes to formulate his own three laws of planetary movement, which he published in 1609 under the name Astronomia Nova.